- FanGraphs Baseball - http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs -

Recognizing Austin Jackson

I’m not overly interested in MVP postmortems. I’m happy it’s over, and we can move on to other things. But, yesterday’s results have inspired me to do one final post attempting to help a center fielder get the recognition he deserves for his 2012 season. And that center fielder is Austin Jackson.

24 different players were named on the 28 AL MVP ballots. Austin Jackson was not among those 24 players. Not a single writer saw fit to even throw him a 10th place bone. Seven writers found room for Alex Rios. Four found room for Jim Johnson. One found room for Raul Ibanez, which… you know, let’s just move on. But no one jotted Austin Jackson’s name down even once, even though he was quite clearly one of the 10 best players in the American League this year, no matter what way you choose to view baseball.

There were 83 players who got at least 500 plate appearances in the American League in 2012. Here is where Jackson ranks among those 83 in a variety of offensive statistics:

BA: .300 (12th)
OBP: .377 (8th)
SLG: .479 (21st)
wOBA: .371 (11th)
wRC+: 135 (13th)

He was a high average and on base guy who also hit for decent power, and on a per at-bat basis, he was a top 15 AL hitter this year. A DL stint in May limited him to 137 games played, but even still, his 617 plate appearances rank 35th in the AL this year. He was, for the most part, an everyday player. If you combine quantity and quality by translating wOBA into wRAA, Jackson comes out #12 in the AL. His two week stint on the DL doesn’t really affect his standing among AL hitters much.

And, of course, he played center field, and by pretty much any method you choose to evaluate him, he was pretty good at it. He has good range and can run down balls in the gap, and whether its the eye test or UZR, Jackson grades out as an above average defender relative to his peers. Once you factor in that his peers are already above average defenders, it becomes pretty clear that Jackson was one of the more valuable defensive players in the league this year. If you prefer numbers, he comes out 24th in position-neutral fielding (UZR plus the positional adjustment).

In other words, that top 15 hitter was also a top 25 defender. He isn’t a great baserunner, so he’s not a true “all around” star like some other unnamed AL center fielder was this year, but he was a good hitter who played good defense at a premium position. And, of course, if you like intangibles, his team made the playoffs, and they probably wouldn’t have without him.

In terms of why he got ignored, it’s not the position he played, or the context he played in. After all, it’s not like center fielders as a whole were discriminated against. Four of the top 10 finishers were center fielders, with Adam Jones being named on 24 ballots and Yoenis Cespedes being named on 14. Alex Rios, who used to be a center fielder but has now shifted over to a less demanding corner position, was named on seven ballots, despite being a worse hitter and playing for the team whose collapse allowed Jackson’s team to win the division.

At the end of the day, the only obvious explanation for why Jackson didn’t appear on a single ballot – RBIs. He finished 50th in the league in RBIs — because he hit leadoff, of course — and wasn’t particularly close to Trout, Hamilton, Jones, or Cespedes in that category. Voters much prefer driving in runs to scoring them, and Jackson’s spot in the line-up didn’t allow him to drive in enough runs to get noticed.

Which is just too bad, because Austin Jackson had a really terrific 2012 season. I guess if we recognize that, it makes it harder to continue to claim that one player carried the Tigers into the playoffs by himself, but I’m okay with that. Jackson did more than his fair share, and deserves recognition for his outstanding season. He didn’t get it yesterday, but hopefully people around the country noticed that he turned himself into one of the game’s best overall players.